That In Patagonia is hard to categorise was highlighted by Chatwin himself on the occasion of its American publication. He drafted a letter to his US publisher asking that it be taken out of the travel literature category. The book had received a dazzling reception in the UK, but Chatwin hated the term ‘travel writer.’ For him, it was an adventure story, a form that was ‘as old as literature itself.’
In its purest sense In Patagonia is a travel book: an account, however erratic, of his journey to ‘the windblown tip’ of South America. But it is not a travel book in the style of Paul Theroux who, whilst a fan, complained that Chatwin never explained how he got places. If it’s the journey itself that fascinates Theroux (as in his own The Old Patagonian Express) then Chatwin was more concerned with what he found when he got there. The Argentine journalist Uki Goni once asked him, ‘Your fascination is people?’ to which Chatwin replied, ‘Yes, in the end. It took rather a long time to discover that.’
But if those fascinating people had been delayed in their discovery, they made a rush onto the pages of Chatwin’s first book. A collection of oddballs and curiosities, they are the human equivalent of Chatwin’s grandmother’s cabinet. Instead of Japanese homunculi, an articulated German monkey and a piece of dinosaur skin, he gives us exiled Russians, Boers, Swiss, Persians, Lithuanians, Spaniards, and Welsh farmers in their tea-rooms. They drift in, tell a part of their story, then drift out, never to be heard from again. It’s what worried his editor, Susannah Clapp, when she was considering In Patagonia’s potential for publication and wrote to her boss that she ‘didn’t feel impelled forward.’
Fortunately Clapp also recognized Chatwin's dazzling prose and extraordinary gift for blending fact, fiction and folklore into a remarkable meditation on the impulse to travel; as well as a Cubist portrait, by no means complete, of one particular - sometimes terrifying, other times transcendental – destination. She gave it the green light and couldn’t have been more thrilled by the response to its publication. “He has fulfilled the desire of all real travellers,” wrote Theroux in The Times. Graham Greene sent a personal letter calling it one of his ‘favourite travel books.’
Chatwin may have disliked the term, but I would argue that In Patagonia is travel literature at its most compelling and universal; not a simple recounting of a linear journey, but a philosophy of all journeys, past and present. To borrow a phrase from a collection of his essays, it is an anatomy of restlessness.
The book can frustrate some readers with the sometimes obscure way it builds its theme. But the earlier reference to Cubism is not insignificant: Chatwin always wanted the book to be Cubist in form, a series of vignettes folding in upon each other, to build into one whole. In that, he succeeds quite brilliantly.
It is true, however, that In Patagonia is not without its problems, and the thorny issue of its accuracy must be considered. After publication, some of its curious characters came forward to complain that Chatwin had made things up. One woman he has reading Mandelstam claimed she had never heard of Mandelstam and was, in fact, a fan of Agatha Christie. An especially aggrieved Argentine boy called Euan hated the intimation that he might have been the lover of the piano player Anselmo; in reality it was Chatwin who had seduced Anselmo. With such scant regard for the truth how can we believe anything that Chatwin writes? I can only say that on historical facts Chatwin at least appears to have done thorough research, and his depth of knowledge (of art, literature, poetry, history, the great explorers and mythical folklore) is breathtaking.
Indeed, that would be my only criticism; Chatwin sometimes expects us to ‘get’ a reference, however obscure it may be. But the curious are richly rewarded and inspired to explore further. And in the end that is what all great literature should do: inspire.
The New York Times: "A little masterpiece of travel, history and adventure."
The Guardian: "The book that redefined travel writing."
The Times: "He has fulfilled the desire of all real travellers, of having found a place that is far and strange and seldom visited."
New Statesman: "Wintry, but beautiful prose."
Salon.com: "An unfiltered, poignant portrait of an isolated, rugged land and isolated, rugged settlers."
Amazon.com: "In Patagonia remains a masterwork of literature."
Patrick Leigh Fermor: "What a marvellous book it is."
Chris Moss: "Dated and dusty."
Pico Iyer: "Chatwin's books seem to dance around the distinction between fact and fancy." (Salon.com)